Before President-elect Donald Trump brings in the bulldozers to “drain the swamp” in Washington, I hope he will consider the career achievements of two people who embody the nation’s tradition of bipartisan foreign policy leadership, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft.
The two former national security advisers came from vastly different worlds to join in constructing the foreign policy tradition Trump seems ready to demolish. Brzezinski, now 88, is a Polish refugee who served Democratic President Jimmy Carter. Scowcroft, 91, is a Mormon ex-military officer from Utah who worked for Republican Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.
Both were Cold War hawks who were honored recently by Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter with the Distinguished Public Service Award, the Pentagon’s highest award for civilians. But both were also outspoken critics of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — not the belated and muffled opposition expressed by Trump, but the kind that cost them friendships and access.
What these two shared was a vision of an outward-leaning United States that led a global network of security alliances and trading partnerships. This system, anchored by NATO and alliances with Japan and South Korea, was often described as the “liberal international order.”
With Trump’s election, this global architecture seems to be cracking. Trump is so inexperienced that it’s hard to predict just where his foreign policy views will settle out. But many of his supporters (and kindred spirits abroad) are in open revolt against what they see as the menace of globalization.
Trump should think carefully about what he would cast aside. This is the structure of enduring American power. It has been built on military strength, yes, but also on the generosity and openness of the American system. Our “soft power” was expressed in the biblical injunction carved on the gates of the American University of Beirut, founded in 1866: “That they may have life and have it more abundantly.” Whatever egregious mistakes the United States may have made over the past 150 years, people still thought our country represented that aspiration.
The “globalization” that Trump supporters oppose is nearly impossible to undo on an economic level: Today’s corporations and financial markets are instantly connected and integrated. But on a political level, the global system is already unraveling, and that should worry Trump, not cheer him. As this American-led system weakens, the beneficiaries will be a rising China and a pugnacious Russia. Globalization may need a “course correction,” as President Obama said Wednesday, but that requires continued American leadership.
Here’s where I wish Trump would listen to Brzezinski and Scowcroft and the traditional foreign policy consensus they represent. Eight years ago, I moderated a conversation with the two of them that was published as “America and the World.” I spoke with them this week about Trump.
Scowcroft spoke at a luncheon in his honor hosted by the Aspen Strategy Group, a bipartisan foreign policy organization that epitomizes the elite that Trump wants to overthrow. Scowcroft, frail and struggling for words to convey the lessons of a lifetime of public service, implored the group to cast aside their misgivings and put the country first. “If you’re asked to serve, please do,” said Scowcroft. “This man needs help badly.”
Brzezinski was honored a week ago at the Pentagon. Carter described him as “one of the finest strategic thinkers and policymakers of our time.” He said Brzezinski had understood that America must “live in an insecure world with ‘dignity, with idealism, with steadfastness.’ ”
I asked Brzezinski what advice he would give Trump. “Mr. President,” he said, composing the memo in his head, “don’t assume that strong verbiage conveys strength. It has to be convincing. Be honest and frank, but don’t kiss ass. You could do the world a service if you said to President Putin: ‘Don’t be an adventurer, especially when you’re carrying a loaded weapon.’ ”
In Trump’s eagerness to show he really means to bring change, he has been signaling disdain for all the traditional centers of power, from environmental scientists to economists, from diplomats to generals. Some Americans who resented these traditional sources of power must enjoy watching the Faculty Club burn to the ground.
But Trump needs to be careful. Unless he’s very foolish, he will want to be a good and successful president. He inherited a nation that is still the world’s only superpower. New reports Thursday night said Trump planned to name Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a combative and very political retired Army officer, to the national security adviser post held by Scowcroft and Brzezinski. Is he a person who can sustain the structure of alliances and power built over 70 years? Or is he someone who would undermine that structure? That’s the right question for Flynn and Trump.